Travel | November 8, 2022 10:37 am

A Perfect Weekend in the Keys: Scuba Diving, Sport Fishing and a Ride on the “African Queen”

To catch or swim with the fish? Our island itinerary allows for it all.

A diver explores the coral reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Fla. The reef system in the Keys is the only contiguous coral barrier reef in North America.
Who's up for some scuba?
Bob Care/Florida Keys News Bureau

The bucolic charms of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada center on the water, the reefs, the wrecks and Everglades National Park (reached by boat from Key Largo).

Key Largo is the place for scuba divers (and snorkelers, too) to get wet with Jesus, as adventurers will find the massive Christ of the Deep statue in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park — the world’s first underwater park, created in 1960 and designed to protect the fragile reef system that was being destroyed by oil drilling, shipping and other human intrusions. It took until 1990 for even more of these beautiful waters to be protected, as that state park became a part of the larger Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that stretches from above Key Largo to well beyond Key West. It is within this sanctuary that beautiful reefs await adventurous divers, as well as purposefully sunken wrecks that have turned into artificial reef systems.

If you’re heading here strictly for the underwater excursions, follow the Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail for a great series of dives, checking out the different ships as you travel south. Begin in the water east of Key Largo with the City of Washington, which sunk in 1917 in a depth of 25 feet, then make your next dive the Benwood, one of the trail’s most popular wrecks, near Key Largo’s Dixie Shoals. It went down in 1942 and is scattered over a large area in depths as deep as 45 feet and teems with marine life. Watch for blacktip sharks, colorful parrotfish and much more roaming around this shipwreck. 

The Duane is a Coast Guard cutter donated as an artificial reef, located off south Key Largo, in 120 feet of water, so that one is for experienced divers to explore. It’s fully intact and divers can roam in and out of its wheelhouse and various hatches, and even peer into the smokestack, where you never know what might be lurking. And don’t miss the San Pedro, the Spanish galleon that sank in 1733, loaded with treasure. That bounty has been picked clean, but this is the oldest shipwreck along the trail and is only in 18 feet of water.

Make Key Largo, Tavernier or Islamorada your home base, then choose a dive company like Conch Republic Divers (Tavernier), Islamorada Dive Center or Sea Dwellers Dive Center (Key Largo), as all three of those are PADI dive training centers, which are known for their professional training and safety protocols.

And when you’re ready to get out of the water, visit the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada and test your knowledge of how the sport (and related jobs, like Navy SEAL or salvage diver) has evolved.

Discover Movie History on Both Land and Sea 

If an easygoing adventure (perhaps with cocktails included) is your idea of a perfect weekend and you’re excited by the prospect of immersing yourself in movie and TV lore, there are some cool spots to visit — including one very special boat trip. Start with your entry into the Keys on Route 1, as the Overseas Highway, especially the section that crosses Manatee Bay heading toward Key Largo, has been the spot for some iconic action sequences. You probably can name two of them, as True Lies and Licence to Kill used that long bridge for thrilling cinematic moments. (In this case, there probably won’t be any helicopters chasing you.) 

Down in Key Largo itself is the boat trip to remember for lovers of The African Queen, the John Huston classic adventure tale that won Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar in 1952. He and Katharine Hepburn really went to Africa to shoot that film, but now the actual small steamship they rode to freedom lives in Key Largo and makes five daily cruises out of the canals to the Atlantic Ocean. You can even book it for a personal party cruise.

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For something more contemporary, Bloodline, the Emmy-winning, steamy family thriller that ran on Netflix for three seasons, made its home mostly on Islamorada, with the prettiest spot to visit being Anne’s Beach, where you’ll be able to join locals living in the Conch Republic for a day of sun and fun. Picnic on the boardwalk or go for a swim, but bring water shoes here, as the beach is closer to clay than sand. Habanos Oceanfront is a classic Florida beach joint that serves up messy, good Cuban food and beer or wine, so you know what to do there.

Richard Stanczyk, left, owner of Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada, Fla., holds a swordfish caught during daylight hours by Vic Gaspeny, right, while fishing off Islamorada in the Florida Keys on the Catch 22. Stanczyk and Gaspeny pioneered daytime swordfishing off the Florida Keys.
Richard Stanczyk, left, owner of Bud N’ Mary’s Marina in Islamorada holds a swordfish caught by Vic Gaspeny, right.
Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau

Go After That Big Fish

Got the drive to become a modern-day Hemingway? Then get thee to Islamorada, the little island known as “The Sport Fishing Capital of the World,” and perhaps you’ll come home alive with a trophy marlin (unlike The Old Man and the Sea). Even if you don’t nab the biggest fish in the sea, sport fishing is still an exhilarating experience that challenges every bone in your body as you try to take down a tuna, sailfish, dolphinfish (mahi-mahi) or other big fish. Head into Florida Bay, aka “the backcountry,” to test your skills at hooking a tarpon and a redfish, or motor off into the Atlantic Ocean (“the front side”) to throw down your tackle for one of those monster catches. 

There are fishing tournaments galore here, for sailfish, tarpon, dolphinfish, bonefish and more if you’re feeling competitive, but for an easier weekend of just pitting yourself against the fish in the sea, simply join one of the numerous fishing boat charters that head out on every good-weather day and see what happens. Don’t forget the sunscreen, whatever else you do, as the water reflects those rays right back onto your nose.

Where to Stay and Dine

There’s every range of hotel to rest your weary head after a day of outdoor exercise and adventure, including favorites like the Creekside Inn in Islamorada, set right on the waterfront on the ocean side of Tavernier Creek Bridge. Comfortable rooms, kayaks at the ready, two swimming pools and a central location make this one a winner. To be right at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, spend a bit more for the Reefhouse Resort & Marina and enjoy suite living in a place with a private beach and waterfront spa. And Florida residents get a 20% discount off room rates at the Reefhouse.

Marker 88 is a beautiful waterside restaurant to dine in Islamorada on Plantation Key, with live music always on offer, plus a natural beach that’s perfect for sunset watching while sipping excellent craft cocktails. That Hemingway theme comes back here with their rum and lime juice concoction named for the novelist — and leave room for their homemade Key lime pie, famous since this place first opened in 1967. Check out Lazy Days in Islamorada as well, for their picturesque waterfront setting and groaningly full plates piled with incredibly fresh seafood. Save room for the conch fritters.